Red China blues by Dikotter: an account of the country's developments during Xi Jinping era
The tumultous story of the world’s second-largest economy told through 600 documents from the country’s municipal and provincial archives Manoj Kewalramani
Ensuring strict control over the historical narrative is a key aspect of the Communist Party of China (CPC) toolkit to maintain legitimacy. One way in which the party has done this is through the adoption of official resolutions, which argue that “both the facts of history and the reality of today prove that without the CPC, there would be no new China and no national rejuvenation”.
Frank Dikotter’s China After Mao: The Rise of a Superpower, however, punctures this narrative. The book offers a granular and engrossing account of the key economic and political developments in China, starting from 1976 till the era of Xi Jinping. In telling the story of over four decades of tumult, the author primarily relies on over 600 documents from China’s municipal and provincial archives along with newspaper reports and unpublished memoirs of key party members, such as the diary of Mao’s personal secretary Li Rui.
Through this painstaking archival work, the picture that Dikotter paints is not one of a self-assured leadership that is moving ahead on a clearly defined path drawn on the basis of long-term, strategic thinking. Rather, it is of a party whose policies have oscillated between loosening and tightening controls as it has sought to redefine the basis of its popular legitimacy by focusing on economic growth and nationalism.
“There is no grand plan, no secret strategy, but rather, a great many unpredictable events, unforeseen consequences, and abrupt changes of course,” Dikotter writes. Ideology, factional politics, the fear of losing power, the pathologies of a Leninist Party-state structure, and the inherent limitations of a centrally planned economy obsessed with price controls are among the key factors driving this oscillation.
One extremely poignant example of political uncertainty rather than a grand vision being the norm is a reminder that revolutionary leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous southern tour in January 1992, which settled the political debate over economic policies after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, was blacked out by state media. Then General Secretary, Jiang Zemin, would later apologize for this at a Politburo meeting in March of the same year.
Over the course of the 10 chapters, Dikotter makes a strong case that economic reform in China has never been about expanding the role of the market. He argues that Chinese leaders have repeatedly emphasized that maintaining the CPC’s monopoly over political power has been the overwhelming goal of economic reform, necessitating state intervention and control over the economy. Dikotter says to this day, land, key raw material resources, major industries, and banks are either directly or indirectly controlled by the state. For instance, 95 of the top 100 private firms in China today belong to current or former CPC members. Consequently, what one has witnessed since 1978 is not a process of economic liberalization, but merely decades of tinkering with the planned economy.
Dikotter explains that capitalism is about capital, which is subject to rules on rates of return and profit margins. But in China, capital has remained a “political good, distributed by state banks to enterprises controlled directly or indirectly by the state in pursuit of political goals”. This politicized approach has led to tremendous inefficiencies, corruption, wasted investments, and a system whereby local officials have continued to subvert central plans to pursue their own interests and networks and engage in protectionism.
The author rightly terms this as a “basic skill” required to operate in a planned economy. These pathologies are evident even today. For instance, despite Xi’s exhortations, local protectionism remains structural, hindering the goal of building a national unified market.
While some argue that Xi’s placement of loyalists in key positions is a precursor to addressing these challenges, structural changes to China’s political economy are unlikely unless state control is loosened. And that, if one goes by Dikotter’s thesis, is not on the cards.